Hinterberger v. Iroquois Sch. Dist., Case No. 1:08–cv–317–SJM.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. Western District of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtMcLAUGHLIN
Citation898 F.Supp.2d 772
PartiesHeather HINTERBERGER, Plaintiff, v. IROQUOIS SCHOOL DISTRICT and Sally Loftus, Defendants.
Decision Date26 September 2012
Docket NumberCase No. 1:08–cv–317–SJM.

898 F.Supp.2d 772

Heather HINTERBERGER, Plaintiff,
IROQUOIS SCHOOL DISTRICT and Sally Loftus, Defendants.

Case No. 1:08–cv–317–SJM.

United States District Court,
W.D. Pennsylvania.

Sept. 26, 2012.

[898 F.Supp.2d 776]

Thomas V. Myers, Nichols & Myers, PC, Marissa Savastana Watts, T. Warren Jones, MacDonald, Illig, Jones & Britton, Erie, PA, for Plaintiff.

Richard A. Lanzillo, Knox, McLaughlin, Gornall & Sennett, Erie, PA, for Defendants.


McLAUGHLIN, SEAN J., District Judge.

In March of 2004, Plaintiff Heather Hinterberger was seriously injured while attempting

[898 F.Supp.2d 777]

a stunt as a member of the Iroquois High School cheerleading squad. She later filed a civil action in the Erie County Court of Common Pleas against her cheerleading coach, Sally Loftus, and the Iroquois School District. On November 17, 2008, the case was removed from the court of common pleas to this Court.

At this procedural juncture, Hinterberger's sole remaining cause of action against the Defendants is a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on the alleged violation of her federal substantive due process rights. This Court's subject matter jurisdiction is premised upon 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343, and 1441(a).

Presently pending before me in the above-captioned case is a renewed motion by the Defendants for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


Plaintiff suffered a serious closed head injury on March 3, 2004 while attempting to perform a cheerleading stunt known as a “twist down cradle.” At the time, the Plaintiff was a freshman at Iroquois High School (“IHS”), and she had been a member of the cheerleading squad for approximately six months. The incident occurred in the Lawrence Park Elementary School Large Group Instruction (“LGI”) room, where the squad often practiced.

Cheerleaders perform cheers, dances, stunts and pyramids. When stunts are performed, there are normally three or four cheerleaders acting as the “base” and one cheerleader acting as the “flyer.” The flyer is the member who is elevated into the air by the base and performs the pose, twist, cradle or other maneuver. Those cheerleaders acting as the base are the ones who hold, elevate, and catch the flyer during the stunt. Plaintiff was a flyer with the IHS cheerleading squad at the time of the incident giving rise to this lawsuit.

In addition to the flyer and the “bases,” the IHS cheerleading squad typically used members of the squad to act as “spotters” when practicing new and un-mastered stunts. Spotters are intended to enhance safety by encircling the bases and the flyer. The idea is that, if a stunt goes awry and the bases appear unable to steady or catch the flyer, the spotters are positioned so as to step in and attempt to do so. To this end, the spotters on the IHS squad were instructed to keep their attention focused on the flyer if she appeared to be falling away from the base. Spotters were further instructed to maneuver themselves between the flyer and the floor if the flyer appeared to be falling.

While a member of the IHS cheerleading squad, Plaintiff participated in both regular and competition cheerleading. Both squads were comprised of identical members with the exception of one individual. Both squads performed the same cheers and routines.

Plaintiff was injured on March 3, 2004 while practicing a “twist down cradle”—a stunt which was being introduced to the squad for the first time on that day.2 At

[898 F.Supp.2d 778]

the time, Plaintiff was acting as the squad's flyer, a position she had had no experience with prior to trying out for the IHS cheerleading squad in the 8th grade.

The twist down cradle is considered an “intermediate level” stunt for high school cheerleading and, at the time of the incident in question, was commonly used in high school cheerleading competitions. The IHS cheerleaders had in fact observed the maneuver being performed by numerous other squads at a cheerleading competition held in July 2003 in Darien Lake, New York. Following this event, several of the IHS squad members asked Defendant Loftus to allow them to add the move to their own routine.

Despite these requests, Loftus did not allow her squad to attempt the twist down cradle until their practice on March 3, 2004, some seven months after the Darien Lake competition, because she did not feel the squad was ready to add the maneuver to its routine prior to that point. In the meantime, Loftus arranged to have a cheerleader from another program who was experienced in the twist-down cradle attend the March 3, 2004 practice so that she could demonstrate the maneuver and assist in teaching the cheerleaders the proper technique.

Specifically, Loftus called upon Jessica James, a flyer form the McDowell High School cheerleading program, to help demonstrate and instruct the IHS squad on proper twist down cradle technique. Miss James had participated as the flyer in both regular and competition cheerleading at McDowell and acted as the Assistant Coach for a local middle school cheerleading program. According to Plaintiffs expert, William Brazier, the McDowell cheerleading program is recognized as being exceptionally well organized and well coached.

In accordance with Loftus's request, James attended the IHS cheerleading practice on March 3, 2004. After demonstrating the twist down cradle for the cheerleaders, James remained for the balance of the practice to help instruct the IHS squad regarding the maneuver.

The twist down cradle involves a four-person base comprised of two “sides,” a “front” and a “back.” The two “side” bases first elevate the flyer to the designated stationary level (depending on whether the stunt is being performed at the half-extension level or the full-extension level); they then thrust or “pop” the flyer upward and release her into the air. The flyer, once propelled upward and released into the air, performs one or more complete revolutions or twists of her body before landing in the arms of her base in a “cradle” or seated “pike” position with her legs together and extended straight out in front of her and her arms straight out from her sides at shoulder level. When performing this maneuver at the half-extension level, the flyer is elevated and made stationary in a position whereby she is standing upright on the hands of the side “bases” with her feet at the bases' shoulder level. When performing at the full-extension level, the flyer is elevated such that she stands upright on the side bases' hands with their arms fully extended upward and overhead before being released into the air. In either case, all of the twisting is done by the flyer; the job of the bases is to elevate and pop the flyer into the air so that she can perform the twist. The twist down cradle can be performed with the flyer executing one rotation or multiple rotations.

On the date in question, Plaintiff was not feeling well but did not inform Loftus of this fact and opted to participate in cheerleading practice. According to Plaintiff, she was aware that the twist-down cradle

[898 F.Supp.2d 779]

was going to be introduced at practice that day and she felt pressured to attend and attempt the stunt, since the squad was getting ready for a national competition in South Carolina and needed to add the move to their routine so that they could score more points.3 However, she did not express these thoughts to Loftus.

After James had demonstrated the twist down cradle, Plaintiff and her bases performed the maneuver approximately a half-dozen times, while Loftus supervised and James observed. Each attempt was performed from the full-extension, rather than the half-extension, position. It was Plaintiff's first day trying the maneuver and at least one witness described her as having a “hard time” with it.

On each of Plaintiff's attempts to perform the twist down cradle—including her last, spotters surrounded the Plaintiff and her base. By one account, 6 to 8 spotters were utilized during these attempts.

Plaintiff does not personally recall what happened to her on her last attempt after the moment when she was elevated and waiting to be released upward. Although eyewitness accounts vary as to what exactly occurred when Plaintiff was popped for the last time by her base, there is no dispute that she flew over and outside the perimeter of her base and her spotters, striking first her left hip, then her left shoulder, then her head on the LGI room floor. As a result, Plaintiff suffered a severe closed head injury.

At the time that Plaintiff struck the floor, there was no matting in place. The only mats then available for the cheerleaders' use in the Lawrence Park Elementary School LGI room were vinyl tri-fold mats which had a tendency to slip or slide during stunting. These 6 x 8 feet mats were approximately 2 and 1/2 inches thick. They were not stored in the LGI room but were kept in a locked storage area inside the boy's locker room at the elementary school, which sometimes made access difficult.

On occasion, cheerleading practices would be held in the IHS gym with the use of wrestling mats, or outside the school. However, due to the number of PIAA-sanctioned athletic programs conducted by the Iroquois School District and the competing demands for gym space, the cheerleaders were often relegated to practicing in the Elementary School's LGI room. Although this room had high ceilings conducive to stunting, the floor was described as “very hard” and likely consisted of concrete covered by industrial grade carpeting with little or no padding. Cheerleading practices were held in this room under the direct supervision of Loftus and with the knowledge and permission of the High School's Athletic Director—James Vogt, the High School and Elementary School Principals, the School District's Superintendent, and the Iroquois School Board. The School District's administrative office, in which the Superintendent's...

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